Contact Tracing Apps

Just when you thought it was safe to use your Bluetooth headphones out in public, comes along the app that tracks your whereabouts with or without your knowledge or permission. What can you do about it?

Bluetooth headphones are a convenience. The disadvantage is that the battery power in them does not last long. There’s been some improvement although it is still about half what is stated on the package or marketing copy. I threw out my old - expensive and not very good sounding - pair long ago.

Only a few weeks before COVID–19 became a household word, before lockdown, I decided to try another pair of (cheap this time) Bluetooth headphones. I also wanted to be able to listen to some hardware which did not have Bluetooth - and wanted to be able to switch between devices anytime.

There are Bluetooth intermediary devices that transfer an analog signal - a normal 3.5mm headphone port - to a Bluetooth signal. Using this device I can plug into various devices and not turn on Bluetooth on a mobile device.

Now there are apps that theoretically assist with local contact tracing. That’s fine if you agree to what these apps will do to your device and your privacy, but they do not tell you everything. While we say “apps” there are actually only two apps that all contact tracing apps are derived from. There is the Apple-Google app - do you trust either of these companies? This particular version is known to turn on Bluetooth on your device without your knowledge. And there is the MIT app. The MIT app is the one that local authorities use to develop their own version of the app. The MIT software is privacy focussed, but when adapted by a state or local group, you cannot verify that the privacy safeguards are intact.

Therefore, it was sheer luck that I had ordered this Bluetooth intermediary device shortly before these apps came along. Bluetooth can be detected wherever it is on, but with this device on instead of your mobile unit’s built-in Bluetooth, any intercept would show only your headphones, the dumb Bluetooth broadcast signal, and possibly what is playing through them.

The battery in the Bluetooth analog converter I purchased lasts slightly longer than the Bluetooth headphone battery. Count on charging them both at the same time.